Ladies and gentlemen, start your search engines!


For anyone doing research--students, journalists, consumers--the Internet seems to provide unlimited information. Unfortunately, if you're not familiar with how online search engines work, their results often seem to require additional sifting. We'll help you refine your Internet research skills so you can get where you want to be fast. You may even end up feeling like you have the world (or at least the World Wide Web) on a string.

 Research, especially on the Internet, presents a chicken-and-egg kind of challenge: You can't find what you're looking for until you refine what you're looking for. But how do you refine it if you don't know much about it? Fortunately, the process tends to sort itself out--you begin with a general topic or question, and as you learn more, you look for more details. Hold onto your index cards--we'll get you through the entire procedure.

Note: This writing explains basic search terms and procedures, but not how to judge what you find.

1. Understand search engine logic

Search engines are software programs that send "crawlers," "spiders," or "robots" through the Internet, cataloging important words on websites and organizing access to those sites based on what they find. When you search the web with a search engine, you're really searching that engine's index of sites. Here's how to access and use a search engine:

Access. You can access search engines through Internet service providers (ISPs) or browser software. ISPs usually have their own search engines, but you can access other engines through ISPs by typing their names or website addresses (known as URLs) into the search box, usually found at the top of the provider's home page. Popular search engines include Yahoo!, Excite, and Google.

When a search engine locates websites in its index that contain the words you typed into the search box, it presents them in a list. By clicking on the addresses of the sites that seem most promising, you can jump directly to these websites.

Use the directory. When you access a search engine's home page, it may already have directories listed according to subject. If you want to search through one of these subjects, click on it, and it will reveal subcategories. Click on a subcategory, and then choose from the list of webpages it reveals.

Use commands. All search engines have an option where you can type in words and commands to search their full index of webpages. The space where you type is usually located at the top of the search engine's home page. Usually, you'll begin with a general command, often a single word. As you learn more about your subject, you'll become more specific, including and excluding certain elements (explained later).

Be specific. When you type in just one word, you usually access a wide variety of sites using that word in their pages. If the word is fairly unique, such as "astrophysics," you'll still access fairly relative sites. If the word has several dimensions, though, such as "scientist," you'll pull up sites that refer to botany, neurology, physics, medicine, mathematics, and maybe even humorous references to "rocket scientist." From the very beginning, it's best to be as specific as possible.

2. Add or delete elements

You've mastered the one word search and learned a little about the scale of the Internet. Now, how do you refine your search? Begin by adding words and symbols.

Use the "+" symbol. Say you're researching the movie star Cary Grant. But you don't want to access pages on just Cary Grant, you want to access pages that mention his work with the actress Katharine Hepburn. To program the search engine to list pages that include both these movie stars, use single words and the "+" symbol, like this: +Grant +Hepburn. Don't put a space between the symbol and the word, but do put a space between each symbol/word combination.

Add even more elements. If you want to research Grant and Hepburn's contributions to screwball comedy, add to the equation this way: +Grant +Hepburn +screwball +comedy. (Step 5 explains how to search for phrases such as "screwball comedy" or full names such as "Cary Grant" in more detail.)

Delete elements. Sometimes, the search engine will list webpages that discuss your subject in conjunction with elements you don't need. For instance, say you're researching Bob Dylan, but you don't want to know anything about his career as a folk singer; instead you want to research Dylan the rock-and-roll star. To get around this, you'd use the "-" symbol, and would type in the command: Dylan -folk.

3. Create phrases

When searching for a proper name or a subject that includes more than one word, create phrases to narrow the search. You can create a phrase by grouping words inside quote marks: "Bob Dylan," "Cary Grant," or "screwball comedy."

Phrases can also help you avoid confusion by searching for words that are located close together in a webpage's text. For instance, you may be searching for a place to buy red wine vinegar. If you don't string these three words together inside quote marks, you may find a site that sells--or reviews--red wine and vinegar, but not necessarily red wine vinegar. By placing a string of words together inside quote marks, you instruct a search engine to look for precisely that phrase.

4. Use the wildcard

What do you do if you want to search for everything concerning a certain topic? For example, you're researching horses, and you want horsepower, horseback, horsemanship, horseman, horsewoman, and maybe a few things you haven't even thought of yet.

Use the "*" symbol. To indicate missing letters, use the "*" symbol. For example, by typing horse*, the * will stand in for all the endings you can (and can't) imagine. This symbol also works effectively within a word, so you can simultaneously search for the words "woman" and "women" by entering the command "wom*n."

5. Put it all together

For a truly detailed search, you can combine phrases and additions or deletions. Using the previous examples, this means you can search for: "Bob Dylan" -"folk singer," or "Cary Grant" +"Katharine Hepburn" +"screwball comedy," or horse* -race.

The basic commands covered in this writing are common for 90 percent of online research. By allowing you to be very specific, they help you refine your search and spend less time following false leads. These commands can quickly move your research skills from the level of a student driver to that of a Formula One racecar driver. Ladies and gentlemen, start your search engines!